Geoffrey Wheatcroft attends Austria’s Schubertiade
Unlike all the other supposedly ‘Viennese’ composers — Haydn from Rohrau, Mozart from Salzburg, Beethoven from Bonn — Franz Peter Schubert really did have ‘Wiener Blut’. He was born, lived and died in Vienna, and so it’s a mild irony that the wonderful festival devoted to him should be at the distant end of the country, as far from the city on the not-so-blue Danube as you can get and still be in Austria.
This is the Schubertiade — the name his friends once gave to the convivial evenings playing his music — held from spring to autumn on and off in the Vorarlberg, the most westerly province of Austria. It was based first at Hohenems, which looks towards Switzerland across the valley of the upper Rhine, moved briefly to the larger town of Feldkirch, then tried Schwarzenberg high in the hills, and now alternates between Hohenems and Schwarzenberg.
One of my favourite festivals in all Europe, this has without question the loveliest setting. I know the Alps rather better in winter than ‘Im Frühling’ (Schubert’s wonderful song about springtime), but what we skiers miss are the meadows, and the wonderful wild flowers, which the nature-loving composer adored. Both those pretty little towns — Schwarzenberg more a village — have a surfeit of history. The lords of Hohenems rose to power in the 12th century as they found themselves sitting on this vital trade route. Later a small Jewish community was established, and there’s no more poignant place in the town than the little Jewish cemetery and its fascinating museum.
Recitals used to be given in the Rittersaal or knights’ hall of the old palace at Hohenems, an ideal setting for lieder and string quartets. Like two of my locals, the Guildhall in Bath and St George’s at Brandon Hill in Bristol, it holds only a few hundred people, and it is all the better for that, as I found for myself on my first visit in 1984 when András Schiff, Edith Mathis, Elly Ameling, Peter Schreier and Alfred Brendel all performed.
For reasons that are a little cloudy, the Schubertiade left the palace for good, and now gives its Hohenems recitals in a modern hall. Schwarzenberg is the village where Angelika Kauffmann grew up, the best-known woman painter of the 18th century: the church is decorated with early murals by her and her father who taught her, and the handsome new concert hall, modest in size and built of resonant wood, is the Angelika-Kauffmann-Saal.
There was a time when we stayed at a B&B in a farmhouse in Viktorsberg, higher still in the hills and with breathtaking views, but needing a few more creature comforts as the years go by, we went to the very comfortable Krone hotel in Hittisau a few miles from Schwarzenberg: to make life easier, a festival bus takes punters to the concerts and back from all the places where they may be staying. In Schwarzenberg itself the Hirschen is a most attractive old inn, with an excellent restaurant, especially for anyone who likes spring lamb, venison, young vegetables and wild mushrooms.
That’s the flowers and the food. Then there’s the music. Schubert is of course the mainstay, along with Beethoven, Schumann, Brahms and Dvorak, piano, solo song and duets, which is what I want, since another sign of passing years is a strong personal preference for chamber music. The singers I’ve heard recently at the Schubertiade included Bernarda Fink, Julia Kleiter and Christoph Prégardien, not to mention our esteemed compatriots Ian Bostridge and Christopher Maltman, with Julius Drake, Graham Johnson and Roger Vignoles tinkling the ivories.
Next year Hohenems hosts the Schubertiade for ten days in May and five at end of August, while Schwarzenberg has rather longer sessions in June and September. Among juicy prospects there are Kate Royal and Mark Padmore (to-gether, and then he sings ‘Winterreise’ with the brilliant pianist Tell Fellner), Fink and Bostridge again, the mezzo Angelika Kirschlager and the soprano Juliane Banse. If I had to choose one out of all the unfor-gettable experiences I’ve had at the Schubertiade, it might be that adorable singer the late Lucia Popp. She sang ‘Lieder auf Deutsch’, but for an electrifying encore gave the ‘Song to the Moon’ from Russalka in Czech, her cradle language. All of that, and then the morning after a musical night before you can walk up through pastures and woodlands, where the only thing to be heard is something musicians crave as much as any key or chord, the sound of silence.